Susan Neiman, Left Is Not Woke. New York: Polity Press, 2023

The philosopher Susan Neiman, after professorships at Yale University and Tel Aviv University, has been director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam for 23 years. At the beginning of her new book, “Left Is Not Woke”, she makes it clear where she is coming from and what her concern is: “I was raised in Georgia during the Civil Rights Movement and turned left from there. At a time when even ‘liberal’ is often a slur in American culture, it’s easy to forget that ‘socialist’ was once a perfectly respectable political position in the land of the free. None other than Albert Einstein wrote a proud defense of socialism at the height of the Cold War. Like Einstein and so many others, I’m happy to be called leftist and socialist.”[1] These sentences open a brilliant philosophical manifesto that not only invites intellectual reflection; even more importantly, it calls for a renewal of leftist thought and action. This wake-up call for the left includes, after an introduction, three thought-provoking chapters on “Universalism and Tribalism”, “Justice and Power” and “Progress and Doom” and a conclusion. In a moving word of thanks, the author remembers her longtime friend and dialogue partner, Todd Gitlin, who died in 2022, one of the leading minds of the intellectual New Left. Like all of Susan Neiman’s books, “Left Is Not Woke” is written in clear, gripping language that engages the reader, yet never descends to agitprop.

In accordance with trends that Susan Neiman critiques here, only those who are “woke” may count themselves on the left. But the author is not prepared to leave the word “left” to those who call themselves “woke” and derive their political position primarily from what they are and not from what they want. Yet many who define themselves as “woke” pursue goals that she herself also shares, as Neiman points out. These include the struggle for social equality, against racial and sexual oppression, the struggle against colonialism, and a distinction between justice and power. However, these values – and this is the central thesis of her book – can only be preserved and defended if they are waged with the right theoretical assumptions.

“Woke” thinking, Susan Neiman argues, has abandoned the core ideas that all leftists should hold. At a time when authoritarian nationalist movements are on the rise on every continent, don’t we have more pressing problems than worrying about the right theory? she asks. “But it’s not small differences that separate me from those who are woke. These are not only matters of style or tone; they go to the very heart of what it means to stand on the left. The right may be more dangerous, but today’s left has deprived itself of the ideas we need if we hope to resist the lurch of the right.” (p. 3) 

This requires a solidarity of people that opposes pessimism about history as well as the philosophically dressed up justification of an unrestrained individualism. The author, who has been studying the thought and the history of Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment for decades, makes it clear that her political opponents are not the followers of woke ideology, whom she hopes to reach, but the well-organized radical right. She emphasizes that the intellectual roots and resources of “Wokism” are at odds with the ideas that have guided the left for more than 200 years: a commitment to universalism, a hard distinction between justice and power, and a firm belief in the possibility – albeit not the inevitability – of progress.

Neiman shows this in the reinterpretation of the term “woke.” It was first used by the blues singer Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) in 1938 in a song dedicated to the support of nine African Americans jailed and threatened with execution under flimsy pretexts, the so-called “Scottsboro Boys”. However, the original solidarity between Blacks and Whites, that had marked the early civil rights movement, began to fray in the mid-1960s. There were many reasons for this to which both sides contributed. Decades later Stokely Carmichael regretted his exclusion of white civil right workers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC – the reference to nonviolence was then deleted) as his greatest political mistake. Today Neiman fears that the Woke movement is making similar mistakes.

What seems important to this reviewer is the world-historical caesura of 1989-1991. After the collapse of Soviet communism, the right proclaimed the end of all forms of socialism, and even of history. Leftists who had become ideologically homeless sought new ideas. The most important of these ideas, “Wokism”, emerged in the following decades as a form of identity politics that emphasized ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation as the most important – and increasingly the only – central features of individual and collective self-understanding. Susan Neiman calls such an attitude tribalism – and points out that tribalism is central to the increasingly radical right policies of the Israeli government (see p. 19).

Recognizing that the Western working class failed to fulfill so far the historical mission attributed to them by Marxists and overthrow capitalism by revolution, many adherents of “woke” ideology have concluded that the working class is the problem. Dismissively referred to as “old white men”, these working people were hostile to women and minorities, did not understand that one could choose one’s own gender, and clung to old ideas of labor and class struggles now denounced as outmoded and patriarchal. But the “Wokists”, in their radical and other-exclusionary rhetoric, do not understand, as Neiman argues, that historical tasks do not disappear simply because the class that seemed called to solve them was unable to do so up to now.

Susan Neiman exposes this view as ultimately historical fatalism and counters it with a perspective that leads to action. It is necessary to forge a new community of solidarity, to counter the right-wing offensive through the unity of all who are committed for progressive changes.

As the foundation of this thinking, Susan Neiman highlights the intellectual heritage of the classical Enlightenment. She draws on thoughts from her earlier books, such as “Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy” (2002) or “Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists” (2008), not at least “Learning from the Germans” (2019). In its struggle against religious dogma, the Enlightenment sought to encourage people to self-determination. Among the supporters of woke ideology, it has instead become common to denounce the Enlightenment as racist, Eurocentric, and colonialist. In fact, Neiman shows how they – from Diderot to Kant – advocated the dignity and liberation of colonially oppressed peoples. Enlightenment thinkers were the first to formulate a critique of Eurocentrism as well as colonialism, to establish the idea of universalism and the state guarantee of human rights. Susan Neiman’s expositions, rich in ideas and material, are a treasure trove for anyone interested in philosophy and the history of ideas.

The rejection of ideas of the Enlightenment as well as the ignorance of socialism’s history leads, as the author shows, to the relativization of the rights of each individual and to the worship of power. She shows this by discussing two counter-Enlightenment thinkers who are still very influential today: Carl Schmitt and Michel Foucault. As different as the works of the legal theorist and the philosopher were from each other, both sought to undermine the ideas of justice and progress.All progress is power-centered and obeys the categories of friend and foe (Schmitt) or is merely illusory, leading to more subtle forms of domination (Foucault). Neiman shows that both Schmitt and Foucault consider power as the only basis and guarantee of success of human action.  Supported by the pseudo-scientific claims of evolutionary psychology, these views combine to create a suspicion of the very notion of value – the default position of culture today.

With its attention to the rights of minorities and its righteous anger against their disadvantages, Wokism, according to Neiman, has focused attention on crucial problems. But its tribalism with its ethnicization of social issues undermines the foundations of solidarity needed to guide left-wing politics and comes alarmingly close to Social Darwinism.

The problem arises precisely in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. “What interest led millions of white people into plague-threatened streets to shout, ‘Black Lives Matter’? This was no alliance but a commitment to universal justice.  To divide members of a movement into allies and others undermines the bases of deep solidarity, and destroys what standing left means.” (p. 31) Soon, however, many declared that this was about black identity politics, with whites being allies at best. “I’m not an ally,” Neiman pointed out. (ibid.) An ally represents interests that temporarily coincide with his or her own, but does not fundamentally advocate the same principles. Tribalism, however, as it did in the 1960s, is destroying the foundations of common struggle among Blacks, Whites, and other groups. Unconditional solidarity, regardless of the origin of all those involved, is incompatible with any identity politics. Of course, reflection on one’s identity in the name of freedom, equality and justice can help the struggle for a better future for all people. Thus, Jewish underground fighters in Poland, Tito’s People’s Liberation Army, the German Socialists and Communists in the concentration camps or Soviet, French and Italian partisans gave their lives for the liberation struggle of their own peoples – and how many at the same time represented and defended the idea of socialist internationalism! This is equally true of Africans and Arabs who served in the army of Free France against fascism – and who were then excluded from the victory parade on the Champs-Élysées. 

The problems dealt with in the book came to light with frightening topicality in early 2023. On January 7 of the year, five police officers in Memphis, Tennessee beat young Tyre Nichols so badly that he died in the hospital as a result of the violence. It was another tragic low point in an endless series of police killings.

All five police officers, like their victim, were African American. This suggests that, like every other social evil under capitalism, police violence is at its core a class issue. The number of Blacks and Hispanics killed by police is disproportionately high, but overall, more Whites than Blacks or Hispanics die today from police violence. As oppressive as the problem of racism is in this regard, it nevertheless plays a secondary role compared to the class issue. Police are recruited primarily from the poorest, most backward segments of the population; White Supremacists often call the shots in police departments. Most victims of police violence, on the other hand, are members of the working class. Racism has always been a tool used by the rulers to divide and pit workers against each other. Unwittingly, the “woke” intelligentsia plays into this game. What changes in the conditions of social inequality when capitalists experienced in power applaud the hoisting of the rainbow color flag? As the philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò has pointed out in “Elite Capture”, such gestures get far more media attention than arguments of those leftists concerned with the nature of power and its mechanisms (see pp. 51-52).

Susan Neiman’s book, written in forceful language, leads the reviewer to such questions. It is the passionate plea for an agenda that brings together people of diverse backgrounds and experience in the struggle for the universal values of the Enlightenment. Today, the conclusion of her work suggests, a democratic socialism stands for these values (after Stalinism sought to realize a pseudo-socialism without freedom). However, Neiman’s implicit message is that it is also important to win over people to the struggle for these supra-temporal values who do not or do only hesitantly see themselves as socialists. The right cultivates its own pseudo-internationalism: it is very effectively creating networks across countries and continents, from Donald Trump and his ilk to the “Alternative for Germany”, the AfD. For this very reason, Susan Neiman writes, it is necessary to learn lessons from history, not least lessons from what Brecht called the resistible rise of German fascism: “Had the left-wing parties been willing to form a united front, as thinkers from Einstein to Trotsky urged, the world could have been spared the worst war.” (p. 143) The contradictions between the hostile Communists and Social Democrats had been all too real and even marked by bloody conflicts between them. “But though the Stalinist Communist Party couldn’t see it, those differences paled next to the difference between universalist leftist movements and the tribal vision of fascism. We cannot afford a similar mistake.” (ibid.)

Mario Kessler, Senior Fellow at Leibniz Center for Contemporary History (ZZF), Potsdam, Germany.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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By Michael Ruse: Anti-Vaxxers And The Covid Crisis: The Sorry Story Of The Pernicious Influence Of A Pseudo-Science

By Rev. Matthew V. Johnson, Jr: A Letter Of Concern To Black Clergy Regarding “Cop City”

By Firoze Manji: Amílcar Cabral And The Politics Of Culture And Identity

By Andrew Feenberg: The “New” Lukács

By Bill Fletcher, Jr: The Continued Relevance Of W.E.B. Du Bois, Sixty Years On

By Philip Green: On Liberalism

By Benjamin Shepard: On Cities Of Friends And Riots: Between Conflict, Solidarity, And Struggles For Recognition

By Sabby Sagal: REVIEW ESSAY: Dostoevsky as Political Agitator: Alex Chistofi, Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2022)

By Mario Kessler: Susan Neiman, Left Is Not Woke. New York: Polity Press, 2023

By Warren Leming: Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song (New York: Simon & Schuster 2022)

By Kurt Jacobsen: John Nichols, I Got Mine: Confessions of a Midlist Writer (Albuquerque: High Road Books, 2022)

By Aidan J. Beatty: Jo Guidi, The Long Land War: The Global Struggle for Occupancy Rights (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022)

By Sarah Kamal: Eben Kirksey, The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2021.